ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- One year after rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit to win the program's first Patriot League Championship, the Navy women's basketball team overcame a seven-point deficit at intermission to post a 57-48 victory over Holy Cross in the title game of this year's tournament Saturday at Alumni Hall in Annapolis.
Navy becomes just the sixth team to repeat as tournament champions and only the second in the last 11 years.
The Mids (18-13) were the No. 3 seed in this year's event, while the Crusaders (18-14) were the No. 5 seed.
The victory advances Navy to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. The Midshipmen will learn of their destination and opponent Monday night when ESPN announces the brackets at 7 p.m. The team will be holding a viewing party that is open to the public at Federal House restaurant in downtown Annapolis.
"We never really got on a roll this year," said Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper, "but we are on one now. The players just deserve so much credit for sticking together and believing in what they could do.
"I am sure some people thought that because we were the home team and the defending champs and the higher seed that this was expected. But if you don't walk away from tonight respecting Holy Cross and the effort that it took for us to win, I don't think you understand the game."
"It is such an incredible feeling (to win this year's title), you can't compare it to anything," said Jade Geif (So., Lakeville, Minn.), who became just the fourth player to be tabbed as the Most Valuable Player of the Patriot League Tournament for a second time. "It is what we dream of."
Navy tallied the opening first goal of the game, but Holy Cross ran off the next nine points. The Mids chipped into the deficit a number of times, but the Crusaders answered Navy's charge on every occasion. Holy Cross would score the final five points of the first half to go into the break with a 25-18 advantage.
Both teams attempted 25 field goals in the first half. Holy Cross made 11 of its attempts (44.0%) while Navy made just seven shots (28.0%). Each team struggled from long range as the Mids were 2 of 9 from outside of the three-point arc while the Crusaders were 3 of 10. Additionally, both teams committed eight turnovers in the opening frame.
"I thought at halftime that the athleticism and active hands of Holy Cross gave us problems in the first half," said Pemper. "We had a hard time getting separation on the perimeter. They followed us everywhere."
The two teams exchanged first goals in the first minute of play during the second half, then Navy went on an 8-0 run that was capped by consecutive field goals from Geif that gave the Mids a 28-27 lead. The Mids would expand their advantage out to four points at 36-32, but Holy Cross quickly scored the next five points to regain the lead at 37-36 with 13 minutes left to play.
Geif would tally another field goal, her fourth of the half, to give Navy a 38-37 lead, then she was fouled while attempting a shot after grabbing an offensive carom. She would make both attempts from the charity stripe to give the Mids a 40-37 lead. Holy Cross would miss a three-point attempt, then Geif kicked the ball outside to Alix Membreno (So., Loxahatchee, Fla.), who drilled a three-point field goal to gave Navy a 43-37 lead with just under 10 minutes left to play. Holy Cross shaved off half of the six-point Navy cushion before two more free throws by Geif made the margin five points (45-40) with 8:05 left on the clock.
Both teams missed a number of good scoring opportunities over the next few minutes. It took well over two minutes of playing time before another point was tallied, with a jumper from Audrey Bauer (So., Lake Zurich, Ill.) -- off of an assist by Geif -- accounting for the points that boosted the Navy lead out to 47-40 with 5:42 remaining. Holy Cross soon made it a four-point game at 49-45 with 4:34 left to play. Navy's ensuing possession ended quickly as Alex Smith promptly stole the ball from Membreno, but Bauer snared an errant three-point attempt from Meredith Ward to give possession back to Navy at the four-minute mark of the game.
Another 20 seconds of time ran off before Membreno was fouled. After making just the second of her two free throw attempts, Membreno swiped the ball from Smith who was soon fouled again. She would make both attempts to give Navy a 52-45 lead with 3:18 remaining on the clock. Ward missed another triple, with Membreno grabbing the loose ball. Navy worked the ball inside to Geif who was fouled while attempting a shot. She would make the latter of her two attempts to push the lead out to 53-45 with 2:50 left to play. Holy Cross needed just 10 seconds to erase three points from the margin as Amy Lepley hit a three-point shot for the Crusaders. That led into one of the more dramatic sequences of the entire game.
Navy struggled to find an open shot on its ensuing possession. Eventually the ball found its way into the hands of Geif above the free throw line. She moved horizontally to the basket before tossing up an off-balanced attempt as the shot clock was expiring. Her desperation heave first rolled and then hung on the rim before falling through to give Navy a 55-48 lead with 2:05 remaining in the game.
"We talk about luck," said Geif. "I don't stay outside too much. I knew I had to shoot it. It was just luck. It was a good feeling, though. Coming down the court we just looked at each other said, `yeah, this is our game.'"
Holy Cross would miss its final six field goal attempts of the game.
After scoring just 19 first-half points, Navy scored 39 points in the second half on 12 of 26 shooting from the field (46.2%) and a 4 of 11 effort (36.4%) from three-point range. The Mids committed five second-half turnovers while forcing Holy Cross into seven miscues with the ball after halftime. Navy also limited the Crusaders to 24-percent shooting from the field after halftime, nearly half (44%-24%) of what they shot in the first half.
"We needed an inside presence (in the second half), we needed Jade to be an inside presence because we knew they couldn't stay with her," said Pemper. "If she could get their attention that would give us the chance to have some kick-outs from her. She was so big for us in the second half."
Geif scored 14 of her career-high 22 points after halftime. Helping her to the career night was an 8 of 10 effort from the foul line. Geif also added seven rebounds to her statistical line.
When asked about her effectiveness in the second half, Geif attributed it to, "my teammates getting me the ball; making good passes to me. Holy Cross was guarding me one-on-one. So having the confidence that if they did double me, I could kick it out. My team wants me to score; my team wants me to go up (with the ball). Having that confidence in each other makes you play even better. I know if I get doubled I'm going to find someone out there to hit the shot."
"I was perfectly fine going down the court and passing it into Jade every time," said Kara Pollinger (So., Fort Gay, W.Va.). "You could look at her and she knew that we were going to win this game. It was inspirational to (both) myself and the team. We just know she is going to score and that confidence is so powerful."
Membreno tallied 13 points, six rebounds and five steals in the game, with Pollinger contributing 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Membreno was named to the all-tournament team for the second straight year, with Pollinger earning her first such honor.
Brisje Malone, Smith and Lepley each made four field goals, scored in double figures, dished out three assists and recorded at least three steals for the Crusaders. Malone's 13 points paced Holy Cross, with Smith adding 12 points and Lepley contributing 11 points and a game-high eight rebounds.
Both Lepley and Smith were named to the all-tournament team, as was Lehigh's Emily Gratch.
Navy improves to 8-3 in all-time home tournament games, including a 7-0 record when being the higher-seeded team in the game.
The win was Navy's first over Holy Cross in the tournament. The Mids were 0-6 against the Crusaders coming into the game, a record that included championship game losses in both 1998 and `99.
The loss was the first for Holy Cross in league tournament games that were played in Alumni Hall. The Crusaders were 6-0 in the venue in prior seasons.
Navy joins Lehigh (1997) and Holy Cross (2007) as the lone No. 3 seeds to win the championship.
Home teams are now 19-2 in the championship game of the tournament.
Navy senior team captain Erin Edwards (Hockessin, Del.) picked up the seventh league tournament victory (counting only games they had played in) of her career to break the Navy record.
Navy had won a total of nine league tournament games in its first 17 seasons in the Patriot League (9-17). The Mids have now won eight league tournament games since the arrival of Stefanie Pemper in the summer of 2008 (8-2).
Navy had compiled a record of 4-36 against Holy Cross prior to Pemper's arrival, but has posted a 7-2 record against the Crusaders under Pemper.